BBC4 - 20th March 2008 - 9.00pm

'Let's not do any more, right?'

'Fuck orrff'

Akin to BBC4's previous bio-pics 'Fantabulosa!'and 'Fear Of Fanny', this drama looks at the off-screen trials and tribulations of British sitcom's oddest couple, 'Steptoe and Son' - Harry H. Corbett and Wilfrid Brambell. This is certainly one of the best single dramas of the year so far, depicting two men ultimately trapped and destroyed by their roles. It is also a refreshing look at Britain in the 1960s and far from the 'swinging' excess we're over-familiar with, the overall mood is one of gloom, claustrophobia, small-mindedness and strict social and class divides. So, the bright, colourful, libertarian society is, I suspect, a smokescreen for this much more truthful vision. As with the previous single dramas from BBC4, the settings are spare and economic, providing broad brush strokes rather than immaculate detail to depict the inner-sanctums of the BBC studios, the 'Steptoe' sets themselves, rehearsal rooms and the respective homes of the actors. But it's always convincing enough and there is a genuine frisson as Jason Isaacs and Phil Davis play out their scenes on the recreated 'Steptoe' set.

The claustrophobia is augmented by two breathtakingly beautiful performances from Isaacs and Davis. Isaacs, in particular, has an uncanny ability to look like Harry H. Corbett and my worry that either he or Davis would descend into impression or caricature of the two men dissolved very quickly. Both actors bring fine nuances to their portrayals culminating in a number of scenes, full of desperation and sadness as they both fall hostage to fortune within the 'Steptoe' series. The irony of Corbett being described as England's Brando is searingly underlined in a moving scene where both actors are rehearsing a scene from one of the episodes where I think Harold Steptoe has aspirations to be an actor. He's on bended knee and recreates the Brando 'I coulda been a contender' speech from 'On The Waterfront' and it is at this moment that reality, where Corbett's own desire to be the Brando of Britain, intersects with the failure of Harold Steptoe to escape from his father's influence. At that moment Corbett becomes the failed son for real and the sympathetic look between the two lead actors is incredible. But there is also utter vitriol when Davis as Brambell spits back in reply, in a moment of self-hatred, 'Actors...they're all poofs!'

Anyone assuming they'd see both Brambell and Corbett having continual slanging matches would simply miss the point of this. The sad story is that both men didn't get on with each other but their entrapment within their times - Brambell as a closeted homosexual and Corbett as a repressed heterosexual - clearly show here that they both engaged in hostilities in a weird no-man's land where they both grew to hate the programme they worked on. The 'Steptoe' writers, Galton and Simpson, are portrayed as quiet, warm and eventually complicit in using the series to mirror, in an art imitating life way, both stars' agonising struggle to actually break free of the series. Cool performances come from Rory Kinnear and Burn Gorman although I was troubled by the distracting comedy beard that Gorman sports throughout. Roger Allam is also sincere and unctuous as BBC Head Of Comedy, Tom Sloane, exploiting the series and disregarding the pain of the actors. It is also great to see Clare Higgins back on our screens and she is really memorable as Joan Littlewood, the doyen of the UK's method acting school, and her ultimate abandonment of Corbett is portrayed here with a withering look as they meet in a pub after the 'Steptoe' success.

Davis as Brambell is equally thrilling. His closeted homosexuality is seen to eat away at the man's soul and Davis shows a man caught between desire and repulsion. Poor old Brambell gets up the courage to go into a gay pub, The Wheatsheaf, and is then barracked by a load of queens with the mocking catchphrase from the series...'You dirtay owwwwwldddd maaaaahhhhhnnn!'. He is utterly crushed by it and flees the pub. It's a scene that is pathetic, tragic and darkly funny.

Michael Samuels directs this with great aplomb, making very creative use of a fairly low budget and focusing appropriately on the performances of the leads. The price of fame for both men was very high and here it is seen as a force that cripples Corbett's and Bramble's careers (Bramble scuttles back to England after a Broadway flop and clings onto Steptoe as though it were a life belt) but also guts them both as men, taking away any power they had to try and be themselves. The demise is prolonged though. Just as Davis and Isaacs mutually agree to stop doing the show and both Corbett and Brambell move on, there's an ominous inevitability in that final phone call enticing Corbett back to an Australian tour of 'Steptoe'. Isaacs sense of resignation and defeat for Corbett is palpable.

Brilliant, tragic, funny.

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